[God] gave to Moses, when He had finished speaking with him on mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God. (31:18)
What is the point of the tablets? Israel had already heard the Ten Commandments as well as all the mitzvot in parshat Mishpatim. What is the point in getting the Ten Commandments again, this time in written form?
I think that the answer is that written tablets signify a more serious and formal commitment than the verbal statements (19:5, 19:8, 24:3, 24:7) that God and Israel had previously made to each other. It is often said that Sinai was like a marriage between Israel and God. More precisely, we can say that the verbal statements were like an engagement, and the actions that followed like a marriage. In halachic terminology, the tablets were a “shtar kidushin” (and the two keruvim hovering over them in the Mishkan, like “edei kidushin”). When Moshe took the tablets to Israel, he was effectively delivering the marriage document (or, in modern terms, the wedding ring) to the Jewish people. Once it was delivered, the marriage would be formalized.
The Mishkan, whose description dominates Sefer Shemot after the giving of the Torah, is the “home” in which God and Israel would dwell after their marriage. God's command in parshat Terumah begins by saying “They shall make me a mikdash, and I shall dwell among them.” (25:8) R' Yaakov Medan shows that the word “mikdash” technically refers to the tablets, not to the sanctuary as a whole. Thus, God's dwelling among us is a result of our possession of the tablets. Once we receive the “wedding ring”, we can then move into our shared home with God.
At that very moment when Moshe came down with the tablets, Israel chose to betray God by worshiping the Golden Calf. The midrash (Shabbat 88b) likens this to a bride who cheats on her husband(-to-be?) while under the chuppah. This midrash receives a much stronger basis when we consider the role of the tablets. Moshe broke the tablets upon realizing he could no longer bring them to the Jewish people. The “ring” could not be delivered while the bride was consorting with someone other than the groom. After forgiveness was obtained for the Golden Calf, a new “ring” had to be forged (the second tablets), and a brand new wedding ceremony performed.
[God] said: “You may not see my face, for a person may not see my face and live.” (33:20)
If we take this verse literally, we run into two problems: we do not want to say that God has a body (and face); and it's not clear why seeing such a face should entail death. But what basis do we have for taking it non-literally, and if we do take it non-literally, what exactly does it mean?
I think the answer comes from Vayikra 20:5: “And I shall put my face against that man (ושמתי את פני באיש ההוא) and his family, and I shall cut off him and all who stray after him, to stray after the Molech, from among their people.” There, having God's “face” opposite you means to be fully exposed to God and His intervention in the world.
Perhaps the same is true regarding Moshe here. A major theme of the Golden Calf episode is that Israel had to be separated somewhat from God, because otherwise Israel's occasional sins would lead to punishments that Israel could not bear. “You are a stiff-necked people; if for one moment I would go up in your midst, then I would [be forced to] destroy you.” (33:5) Something similar appears to happen here with Moshe himself. Even he could not survive the most extreme level of closeness to, and scrutiny by, God. Thus he was limited to seeing God's “backside” - that is to say, an encounter in which God was not “looking at” him, or scrutinizing his actions.
Here and elsewhere Moshe is said to speak to God “face to face”. We are forced to say that this encounter was less intense than “seeing” face to face. Perhaps “speaking” face to face simply means a normal dialog in which both sides can say what they want to say. (Since prophecy is often described in Tanach as a physically overwhelming trance-like experience, such a dialog by Moshe would be quite unusual and impressive). Meanwhile, “seeing” God means something much more intense. God is often physically represented in Tanach by something like a fire or tornado. To “be seen by” either of those, that is to sense their proximity to you, is physically dangerous, So is “being seen by” God.
[God said:] “...for I will not go up in the your midst; for you are a stiff-necked people; lest I consume you on the way.” When the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned; and no man put on his ornaments. Hashem said to Moshe: “Say to the children of Israel: You are a stiff-necked people; if I go up in your midst for one moment, I shall consume you. Therefore now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.” And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments from Mt. Horev onward. (33:4-6)
In these verses, there are three separate mentions of the Israelites' “ornaments”. They go as follows: (A) Israel does not put on their ornaments, (B) God tells them to take off their ornaments, (C) From then on Israel does not wear ornaments.
Part (B) is hard to understand. Why is God telling them to remove ornaments that have already been removed? Here are two possible, and complementary, answers.
1) As part of their mourning, Israel chose not to wear ornaments. But that was temporary: when the mourning ended, as it naturally would, they would resume wearing ornaments. God in effect commanded that they never again put on ornaments. The next verse tells us that they obeyed the command, and from then on ornaments were never worn.
2) Different words are used in each of the three mentions of ornaments. In (A), Israel does not put on (“lo shatu”) ornaments. In (B), God tells them to take off (“hored”) ornaments. In (C), Israel does not wear (“vayinatzlu”) ornaments. Perhaps, as part of the mourning, Israelites did not put on additional ornaments, but kept on the ones they were already wearing. God then told them to go a step further, to take off the ones they were currently wearing. From that point on, Israel neither put on nor kept wearing ornaments – they were entirely “stripped” of ornaments.
Why this distinction between putting on and keeping on ornaments? Perhaps, the reasons for not putting them on and not keeping them on are distinct. Mourning, presumably, means you should be indifferent to your appearance. Thus it's inappropriate to spend time beautifying yourself by putting on ornaments. But precisely because you are indifferent to your appearance, you do not bother to think about ornaments you're already wearing, so the fact that you're wearing them is not a problem. (This is even more true if, as is possible, the ornaments already being worn were part of normal and expected dress and had little “ornamental” value.) Thus, mourning is perfectly consistent with the Israelites' not taking off the ornaments they were already wearing.
When God told Israel to take off even those ornaments (or, according to the other explanation, keep all ornaments off permanently), He had a different purpose in mind. Remember that the Golden Calf was made from Israelite earrings (Shemot 32:3). Thus ornaments were potentially dangerous raw materials for idolatry. God told the people to stop wearing ornaments completely. Perhaps this reduced the risk that another Golden Calf would someday be made, and it certainly provided a constant reminder of the sin and a warning that it not be repeated.
Thus, God's command was not a reflection of mourning, but of distancing from idolatry. The people's not putting on ornaments was selfish in a way – a result of their distress at the recently announced punishment. Their removal of ornaments was selfless – a way of promoting moral behavior. God noticed their response to the punishment, and had them “tweak” it slightly. By this slight change, the people's actions were channeled in a more moral direction.
This moral improvement was held in their favor just a few days later. The people received forgiveness for the Golden Calf, not only because Moshe asked for it, but because the people began to deserve it. It is a sign of God's kindness and love for us that He initiated the very change that was later used as justification for our forgiveness.
One might think that by forgiving the people, God chose the path of mercy over strict justice. But in truth, there was no deficiency of justice in God's decision. Rather, the attribute of mercy was used to changed the situation, until the “merciful” conclusion became truly just.